Written and directed by Stephen Ives, produced by Amanda Pollak, The Big Burn aired in 2014. In the summer of 1910, hundreds of wildfires raged across the Northern Rockies. The Lolo National Forest in Montana was engulfed in smoke and flame. In Idaho, the Coeur d’Alene Forest blazed. Fires burned across Glacier National Park and were torching the mountain slopes above Priest Lake. For every fire successfully extinguished, others ignited. Smoke drifted across the country, darkening skies as far afield as Boston and Seattle, dumping soot on pristine snows in Greenland. Though the fires burned for three months, three quarters of the damage was inflicted over the course of two days when hurricane force winds whipped the flames into a frenzy, house-sized balls of fire rolled through the canyons, trees exploded, and storms of firebrands showered down the mountainsides. By the time it was all over, more than three million acres had burned and at least seventy-eight firefighters were dead.
Ignited during the Forest Service’s infancy, the largest fire in American history had profound consequences. The stories of heroism in the face of an unprecedented inferno, increased public support for the protection of America’s wilderness and assured the future of the Forestry Service. But it had profoundly tragic ramifications as well. Rather than prompting debate about fire protection, the fire squelched all discussion. It ended the tussle between those who thought every fire should be fought promptly and aggressively and those who believed that fire suppression was not always the best way to protect the wilderness. And it set the Forest Service and conservationists on a century-long journey away from controlled burning that would in the end harm the ecology of the wilderness it was intended to protect.